Classroom Questioning: How to ask good questions

Classroom Questioning: How to ask good questions

Classroom questioning is perhaps the most overlooked part of any modern teacher’s pedagogical toolkit. This is despite the fact that questions make up a large chunk of what we do on a day-to-day basis to facilitate learning.

One of the reasons why questions are overlooked is because it can often appear, on the surface, that there is little one can do in order to improve their quality. This is something of a trick of the light. Questions are difficult to analyse and this is due to a number of factors, not least their appearance as impermeable, finished products.

Consider the following two sentences as an example:

1.1 What was the most important cause of the Great Crash?

1.2 Economics is the study of supply and demand, of prices, of money and exchange.

In case 1.1, the immediate reaction centres on the ‘?’ symbol at the end of the sentence. This signals to us that a response is being requested. As such, it exerts influence on the reader, acting as a tacit signal of command (as opposed to the explicit signals of command contained in the sentence: Stop what you are doing right now!). This learnt response – practically a reflex – throws up an immediate barrier which makes it harder for us to analyse the structure and efficacy of any question-sentence more broadly.

Conversely, a sentence such as 1.2 can be quickly and easily broken down and assessed given as how it exerts little influence on us through either its construction or its form.

Developing good questions for use in teaching

The first step in attending to our use of classroom questioning is to identify some of the elements of question-sentences which we need to look at in order to decide if they are any good or not.

But, before we do this, let us briefly consider what we mean by our use of the word ‘good’ to describe a question.

When we teach, our aim is to help students learn. We know students have learnt because they make progress. This progress can be exhibited in many ways. Therefore, a good question is one which helps students to learn; one which helps them to make progress. Keeping this in mind will help us assess the quality and efficacy of our questions more effectively.

Returning to some of the elements of question-sentences we can pick out the following:

– Open or closed

– Range of responses allowed by the form of the question

– Type of responses encouraged

– Subject of the question

– Cognitive acts the question encourages or requests

Analysing what makes good classroom questioning

Each case gives us an analytical route into any particular question-sentence. This makes it easier for us to judge the quality of our questions and to construct questions which help students to learn and make progress. Here is a quick run-down of the above five cases, with an explanation of what tends to make a good question:

Open or closed. Generally, open questions are better than closed questions: What is the answer? Vs. What might the answer be? Closed questions suggest there is a specific answer which students need to find. Open questions encourage students to reason, argue and present evidence in support of their views. Of course, there are times when closed questions are necessary. Invariably, however, greater learning can be stimulated through an open question.

Range of responses. This connects to the above point. Better questions are those which invite students to consider or share a range of responses. These questions are better because they more accurately reflect the reality of our physical and mental experience (and, after all, knowledge is simply an abstraction of that which we sense or deduce). Furthermore, questions which invite more responses create more opportunities to interrogate student thinking, leading to improvements and developments in their quality of thought. Consider this example: What is democracy? Vs. What might democracy be?

Type of response. Different questions encourage different types of responses. This can be seen in the above example of open vs. closed questions. The key to constructing good questions is to consider in advance what types of responses you want and then to construct questions which are likely to lead to these. For example, you might decide that, in general, you would like discursive, reasoned responses. Having set this up as a principle, you can use it to develop effective questions.

Subject of the question. The subject of a question is vitally important. Two questions about the same topic can have radically different subjects. For example: What is the best way to translate a text? Vs. What happens inside someone’s mind during the process of translation? In these two cases, the respondent is being asked to think in two very different ways about what is, ostensibly, the same topic.

Cognitive acts. Continuing with the two questions above, what different cognitive acts are being requested from the respondent? Without going into detail, we can see that the acts are quite different, albeit both complex and challenging. Thinking carefully about what your questions ask students to do in terms of thinking – the processes of thought they seek to engender – is an important step on the path to creating great questions.

So, that provides a little insight into how to improve the quality of your classroom questioning . To find out more, take a look at my bestselling book on the subject: How to use Questioning in the Classroom: The Complete Guide and my free resources including The Ethicist, The What If… Machine and The Philosophiser.

Mike Gershon